Socrates and Plato


Socrates is widely regarded as the founder of philosophy and rational inquiry. He was born around 470 B.C., and tried and executed in 399 B.C.. Socrates was the first of the three major Greek philosophers; the others being Socrates’ student Plato and Plato’s student Aristotle.

Socrates did not write anything himself. We know of his views primarily through Plato’s dialogues where Socrates is the primary character. Socrates is also known through plays of Aristophanes and the historical writings of Xenophon. In many of Plato’s dialogues it is difficult to determine when Socrates’ views are being represented and when the character of Socrates is used as a mouthpiece for Plato’s views.

Socrates was well known in Athens. He was eccentric, poor, ugly, brave, stoic, and temperate. He was a distinguished veteran who fought bravely on Athens’ behalf and was apparently indifferent to the discomforts of war. Socrates claimed to hear a divine inner voice he called his daimon and he was prone to go into catatonic states of concentration.

The conflicting views of the Ionian and Eleatic philosophers of nature encouraged skepticism about our ability to obtain knowledge through rational inquiry. Among the Sophists, this skepticism is manifested in epistemic and Moral Relativism. Epistemic relativism is the view that there is no objective standard for evaluating the truth or likely truth of our beliefs. Rather, epistemic standards of reasoning are relative to one’s point of view and interests. Roughly, this is the view that what is true for me might not be true for you (when we are not just talking about ourselves). Epistemic relativism marks no distinction between knowledge, belief, or opinion on the one hand, and truth and reality on the other. To take a rather silly example, if I think it’s Tuesday, then that’s what’s true for me; and if you think it’s Thursday, then that’s what is true for you. In cases like this, epistemic relativism seems quite absurd, yet many of us have grown comfortable with the notion that, say, beliefs about the moral acceptability of capital punishment might be true for some people and not for others.

Moral Relativism is the parallel doctrine about moral standards. The moral relativist takes there to be no objective grounds for judging some ethical opinions to be correct and others not. Rather, ethical judgments can only be made relative to one or another system of moral beliefs and no system can be evaluated as objectively better than another. Since earlier attempts at rational inquiry had produced conflicting results, the Sophists held that no opinion could be said to constitute knowledge. According to the Sophists, rather than providing grounds for thinking some beliefs are true and others false, rational argument can only be fruitfully employed as rhetoric, the art of persuasion. For the epistemic relativist, the value of reason lies not in revealing the truth, but in advancing one’s interests. The epistemic and Moral Relativism of the Sophist has become popular again in recent years and has an academic following in much “post- modern” writing.

Socrates was not an epistemic or moral relativist. He pursued rational inquiry as a means of discovering the truth about ethical matters. But he did not advance any ethical doctrines or lay claim to any knowledge about ethical matters. Instead, his criticism of the Sophists and his contribution to philosophy and science came in the form of his method of inquiry.

As the Socratic Method is portrayed in Plato’s Socratic dialogues, interlocutor proposes a definition or analysis of some important concept, Socrates raises an objection or offers counter examples, then the interlocutor reformulates his position to handle the objection. Socrates raises a more refined objection. Further reformulations are offered, and so forth. Socrates uses the dialectic to discredit others’ claims to knowledge. While revealing the ignorance of his interlocutors, Socrates also shows how to make progress towards more adequate understanding.

A good example of the Socratic Method at work can be found in one of Plato’s early Socratic dialogues, Euthyphro.

In Plato’s dialogues we often find Socrates asking about the nature of something and then critically examine proposed answers, finding assorted illuminating objections that often suggest next steps. In this dialogue, Socrates and Euthyphro are discussing the nature of piety or holiness. Socrates and Euthyphro never conclusively discover what piety is, but they learn much about how various attempts to define piety fail. The dialogue works the same if we substitute moral goodness for piety. Understood in this way, Euthyphro provides a classic argument against Divine Command Theory, a view about the nature of morality that says that what is right is right simply because it is commanded by God.

Socrates would not have us believe our questions have no correct answers. He is genuinely seeking the truth of the matter. But he would impress on us that inquiry is hard and that untested claims to knowledge amount to little more than vanity. Even though Euthyphro and Socrates don’t achieve full knowledge of the nature of piety, their understanding is advanced through testing the answers that Euthyphro suggests. We come to see why piety can’t be understood just by identifying examples of it. While examples of pious acts fail to give us a general understanding of piety, the fact that we can identify examples of what is pious suggests that we have some grasp of the notion even in the absence of a clear understanding of it.

After a few failed attempts to define piety, Euthyphro suggests that what is pious is what is loved by the gods (all of them, the Greeks recognized quite a few). Many religious believers continue to hold some version of Divine Command Theory. In his response to Euthyphro, Socrates points us towards a rather devastating critique of this view and any view that grounds morality in authority. Socrates asks whether what is pious is pious because the gods love it or whether the gods love what is pious because it is pious. Let’s suppose that the gods agree in loving just what is pious. The question remains whether their loving the pious explains its piety or whether some things being pious explains why the gods love them. Once this question of what is supposed to explain what is made clear, Euthyphro agrees with Socrates that the gods love what is pious because it is pious. The problem with the alternative view, that what is pious is pious because it is loved by the gods, is that this view makes piety wholly arbitrary. Anything could be pious if piety is just a matter of being loved by the gods. If the gods love puppy torture, then this would be pious. Hopefully this seems absurd. Neither Socrates nor Euthyphro is willing to accept that what is pious is completely arbitrary. At this point, Socrates points out to Euthyphro that since an act’s being pious is what explains why the gods love it, he has failed to give an account of what piety is. The explanation can’t run in both directions. In taking piety to explain being loved by the gods, we are left lacking an explanation of what piety itself is. Euthyphro gives up shortly after this failed attempt and walks off in a huff. If we substitute talk of God making things right or wrong by way of commanding them for talk of the gods loving what is pious in this exchange of ideas, we can readily see that Divine Command Theory has the rather unsavory result that torturing innocent puppies would be right if God commanded it. We will return to this problem when we take up ethical theory later in the course. While we don’t reach the end of inquiry into piety (or goodness) in Euthyphro, we do make discernible progress in coming to see why a few faulty accounts must be set aside. Socrates does not refute the skeptic or the relativist Sophist by claiming to discover the truth about anything. What he does instead is show us how to engage in rational inquiry and show us how we can make progress by taking the possibility of rational inquiry seriously.



Plato (429-347 B.C.) came from a family of high status in ancient Athens. He was a friend and fan of Socrates and some of his early dialogues chronicle events in Socrates’ life. Socrates is a character in all of Plato’s dialogues. But in many, the figure of Socrates is employed as a voice for Plato’s own views. Unlike Socrates, Plato offers very developed and carefully reasoned views about a great many things. Here we will briefly introduce his core metaphysical, epistemological and ethical views.

Metaphysics and Epistemology

Plato’s metaphysics and epistemology are best summarized by his device of the divided line. The vertical line between the columns below distinguishes reality and knowledge. It is divided into levels that identify what in reality corresponds with specific modes of thought.

Objects Modes of Thought
The Forms Knowledge
Mathematical objects Thinking
Particular things Belief /Opinion
Images Imaging

Here we have a hierarchy of Modes of Thought, or types of mental representational states, with the highest being knowledge of the forms and the lowest being imaging (in the literal sense of forming images in the mind). Corresponding to these degrees of knowledge we have degrees of reality. The less real includes the physical world, and even less real, our representations of it in art. The more real we encounter as we inquire into the universal natures of the various kinds of things and processes we encounter. According to Plato, the only objects of knowledge are the forms which are abstract entities.

In saying that the forms are abstract, we are saying that while they do exist, they do not exist in space and time. They are ideals in the sense that a form, say the form of horse-ness, is the template or paradigm of being a horse. All the physical horses partake of the form of horse-ness, but exemplify it only to partial and varying degrees of perfection. No actual triangular object is perfectly triangular, for instance. But all actual triangles have something in common, triangularity. The form of triangularity is free from all of the imperfections of the various actual instances of being triangular. We get the idea of something being more or less perfectly triangular. For various triangles to come closer to perfection than others suggests that there is some ideal standard of “perfectly triangularity.” This for Plato, is the form of triangularity. Plato also takes moral standards like justice and aesthetic standards like beauty to admit of such degrees of perfection. Beautiful physical things all partake of the form of beauty to some degree or another. But all are imperfect in varying degrees and ways. The form of beauty, however, lacks the imperfections of its space and time bound instances. Perfect beauty is not something we can picture or imagine. But an ideal form of beauty is required to account for how beautiful things are similar and to make sense of how things can be beautiful to some less than perfect degree or another.

Only opinion can be had regarding the physical things, events, and states of affairs we are acquainted with through our sensory experience. With physical things constantly changing, the degree to which we can grasp how things are at any given place and time is of little consequent. Knowledge of the nature of the forms is a grasp of the universal essential natures of things. It is the intellectual perception of what various things, like horses or people, have in common that makes them things of a kind. Plato accepts Socrates’ view that to know the good is to do the good. So his notion of epistemic excellence in seeking knowledge of the forms will be a central component of his conception of moral virtue.


Plato offers us a tripartite account of the soul. The soul consists of a rational thinking element, a motivating willful element, and a desire-generating appetitive element. Plato offers a story of the rational element of the soul falling from a state of grace (knowledge of the forms) and dragged down into a human state by the unruly appetites. This story of the soul’s relation to the imperfect body supports Plato’s view that the knowledge of the forms is a kind of remembrance. This provides a convenient source of knowledge as an alternative to the merely empirical and imperfect support of our sense experience. Plato draws an analogy between his conception of the soul and a chariot drawn by two horses, one obedient, the other rebellious. The charioteer in this picture represents the rational element of the soul, the good horse the obedient will, and the bad horse, of course, represents those nasty earthly appetites. To each of the elements of the soul, there corresponds a virtue; for the rational element there is wisdom, for the willing element of the soul there is courage, and for the appetitive element there is temperance. Temperance is matter of having your appetites under control. This might sound like chronic self-denial and repression, but properly understood, it is not. Temperance and courage are cultivated through habit. In guiding our appetites by cultivating good habits, Plato holds, we can come to desire what is really good for us (you know, good diet, exercise, less cable TV, and lots more philosophy – that kind of stuff).

Wisdom is acquired through teaching, via the dialectic, or through “remembrance.” Perhaps, to make the epistemological point a little less metaphysically loaded, we can think of remembrance as insight. A more general virtue of justice is conceived as each thing functioning as it should.

To get Plato’s concept of justice as it applies to a person, think of the charioteer managing and controlling his team; keeping both horses running in the intended direction and at the intended speed. Justice involves the rational element being wise and in charge. For a person to be just is simply a matter of having the other virtues and having them functioning together harmoniously.

Given Plato’s ethical view of virtue as a matter of the three elements of the soul functioning together as they should, Plato’s political philosophy is given in his view of the state as the human “writ at large.” Project the standards Plato offers for virtue in an individual human onto the aggregate of individuals in a society and you have Plato’s vision of the virtuous state. In the virtuous state, the rational element (the philosophers) are in charge. The willing element (the guardians or the military class) is obedient and courageous in carrying out the policies of the rational leadership. And the appetitive element (the profit-driven business class) functions within the rules and constraints devised by the rational element (for instance, by honestly adhering to standards of accounting). A temperate business class has the profit motive guided by the interests of the community via regulation devised by the most rational. The virtuous business class refrains from making its comfort and indulgence the over-riding concern of the state. Plato, in other words, would be no fan of totally free markets, but neither would he do away with the market economy altogether.

Plato’s vision of social justice is non-egalitarian and anti-democratic. While his view would not be popular today, it is still worthwhile to consider his criticism of democracy and rule by the people. Plato has Socrates address this dialectically by asking a series of questions about who we would want to take on various jobs. Suppose we had grain and wanted it processed into flour.

We would not go to the cobbler or the horse trainer for this, we’d go to the miller. Suppose we had a horse in need of training. We obviously would not go to the miller or the baker for this important task, we’d go to the horse trainer. In general, we want important functions to be carried out by the people with the expertise or wisdom to do them well. Now suppose we had a state to run. Obviously we would not want to turn this important task over to the miller, the cobbler, or the horse trainer. We’d want someone who knows what he or she is doing in charge. Plato has a healthy regard for expertise. As Plato sees it, democracy amounts to turning over the ethically most important jobs to the people who have the least expertise and wisdom in this area. There is very little reason to expect that a state run by cobblers, millers, and horse trainers will be a virtuous state.